Today you can have a fully connected home complete with sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, air quality, energy usage, and more, and check in on almost any appliance from anywhere in the world with just a smartphone. But even with all of the various connected appliances, virtual assistants, and copious sensors that can be installed in a modern smart home, the “smart” side of things is still rather lacking.
It’s perhaps best then to think of today’s smart home as a remote-controlled home. No matter how many sensors you have or connected appliances you install, you often still have to manually control things, whether that’s through an app, a voice assistant like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, or an old-fashioned switch on the wall. You can program things like a thermostat’s schedule or timers for lights, or use a motion detector to turn lights on and off automatically. But those are things you have to set up — it’s very rare that the home can automatically react to what’s happening or how it‘s being used and adjust itself, which would truly make it “smart.”
Controlling your home in this manual fashion has gotten easier. Virtual assistants such as Alexa and the Google Assistant now let you set up routines, so multiple smart devices can be controlled at a specific time or with one command. You can tell your smart assistant “good night” and it can lock the doors, make sure your garage door is closed, set your thermostat to its overnight setting, and turn off all the lights in the home.
But wouldn’t it be cool if my home was smart enough to figure out that activity in the house has dwindled and everyone has gone to bed on its own without requiring me to utter a command or set it to a specific time? Or that it’s now summer vacation, so my family is sleeping in later or going to bed later than during the hectic school year? Or maybe the pantry and refrigerator are able to figure out what foods my family consumes the most and replenish those with automatic delivery from the grocery store?
In order to get to that level of smart, the smart home needs two things: lots of data and better interoperability between devices. The first part is accomplished by installing even more sensors that can determine where someone is and what they are doing within the home. That level of monitoring might make some uncomfortable, and there are legitimate concerns about security that should be addressed. But just like your smartphone is a lot smarter because of all the data it has access to, the smart home will be a lot smarter when it has more data to work with too.
The second part of that is more difficult. As it is right now, there are many competing smart home standards for devices to communicate with each other. There are old wireless protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave, modern connectivity such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and even proprietary ways that certain devices share data with each other. And then there seems to be a separate app for every product you install, which requires its own separate account and login. If you were to set up your home with the products we installed in the Home of the Future, you would have no fewer than half a dozen different apps and logins to manage them all.
Without a universal standard that all companies agree upon, interlinking smart devices and sharing data between is surprisingly difficult. There are APIs and connections that many companies offer, but those are only useful if other companies take advantage of them. That means that when you buy something like a smart lock, you have to research in advance if it will work with the smart lighting, smart security system, or smart thermostat you either have already or plan to install in the future. Otherwise, that smart lock will just stand alone and not be integrated into the rest of your smart home.
There are some companies that have tried to solve this problem. Products like the SmartThings and Wink hubs attempt to act as intermediaries between the various gadgets available and allow them to connect to each other and share data. Our Home of the Future has a similar central hub that was installed by a professional integrator and acts as a connection point for many of the smart home devices installed. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are also able to link together multiple devices from different companies into simple routines.
But all of those systems have their limits, and it doesn’t take long to find them. Even with all of our careful planning and built-from-the-ground-up approach, there are products in our Home of the Future that don’t integrate with the central hub and are largely just standalone devices. LG’s smart fridge has a transparent touchscreen on the front and cameras on the inside, but it can’t connect to anything else in the home, such as the Nest Doorbell installed on the front door.
So as I think about the future of the home of the future, that’s what I’m looking forward to: a home that feels as smart as its smart home name implies.